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Texas Attorney General Sues Austin-Travis County Over Local Mask Requirements

A cyclist passes a Spanish language mural, featuring the popular Mexican television actor Chespirito, reading "put on the mask" on Marcelino's restaurant in East Austin.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
A cyclist passes a Spanish language mural featuring the popular Mexican television actor Chespirito, reading "put on the mask" on Marcelino's restaurant in East Austin.

Lee esta historia en español.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has sued Austin and Travis County leaders over what he says is local overstep of the governor's order removing a statewide mask mandate.

“I told Travis County & The City of Austin to comply with state mask law,” Paxton tweeted Thursday, a day after he threatened to sue. “They blew me off. So, once again, I’m dragging them to court.”

The lawsuit, which was filed in Travis County District Court on Thursday, names Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Travis County Judge Andy Brown and interim Medical Director and Health Authority Mark Escott as defendants.

“This case raises a pressing question: who is ultimately responsible for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and other emergencies?” lawyers for Paxton write in the lawsuit. They argue that state orders override any local ones.

Gov. Greg Abbott lifted a statewide order mandating masks and limiting the number of people in businesses Wednesday. In a new executive order, Abbott wrote that “no person may be required by any jurisdiction to wear or to mandate the wearing of a face covering.”

The order still allows businesses to require customers wear masks.

But leaders in the Austin area have insisted that local rules regarding masking and other health protocols will stay in place.

“I will continue to listen to our public health authority, medical professionals, and the CDC who have consistently said masks save lives," Brown wrote in a statement. "It is unfortunate the attorney general is once again failing to make the health of our community his priority.”

On Wednesday, Travis County reported 227 new cases of COVID-19, a number that has declined since January when the area was tallying upwards of 1,000 daily new cases.

“Judge Brown and I will fight to defend and enforce our local health officials’ rules for as long as possible using all the power and tools available to us," Adler said in a statement Thursday. "We promised to be guided by the doctors, science and data as concerns the pandemic and we do everything we can to keep that promise."

Local leaders argue they can keep these requirements because the state allows cities to adopt rules to protect the health of their residents. They argue Abbott doesn't have the power to override state law through an executive order.

“Cities have independent authority under TX constitution, & state law allows cities to create health rules,” Council Member Greg Casar wrote in a tweet on Monday. “We've spoken with legal experts, and I believe the city's [decision] today is both legal and the right thing to do.”

Last July, the City Council voted to authorize the local health authority to establish public health rules. Escott then adopted rules regarding mask-wearing, specifically that people must wear masks outside of their homes except in several cases, like if they’re exercising or eating or drinking. Businesses are also required to disinfect items that are frequently touched and to limit groups to 10 or fewer people.

According to a city ordinance, people who violate these rules can be fined up to $2,000 per offense.

"The enforcement teams work to educate individuals and businesses on the importance of face coverings/social distancing, and also can and have, issued citations," a city spokesperson wrote in an email.

These rules are currently set to expire on April 15, but local leaders could extend them.

Paxton last prevailed against the City of Austin and Travis County late last year, when he sued over a local attempt to limit on-site dining over the New Year's Eve weekend. While the Texas Supreme Court didn't rule on the merits of the case, it did stop the curfew from going into effect.

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